.. ssissippi, and Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Angry words figuratively rocked the Senate hall, as they did the chamber of the House of Representatives. Although President Taylor was a Louisiana slaveholder, he leaned more toward Seward’s antislavery views.
Determined to uphold the Constitution of the United States, the president threatened to send federal troops to protect disputed New Mexico territory from an invasion by proslavery Texans. Southerners countered that, if Taylor followed through with his threat, the act would be the signal for an armed Southern rebellion against federal power. Mississippi called for a convention to meet in June 1850 at Nashville, Tennessee, to consider secession. The best hope of compromise seemed to lie in a series of resolutions drawn up by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky and based on measures proposed by representatives from both parties and both sections. These resolutions were referred to a select committee of 13, headed by Clay. The committee recommended an omnibus bill, based on Clay’s resolutions.
According to the recommended compromise, California was to be admitted as a free state, while the Utah and New Mexico territories were to be organized without mentioning slavery. This meant the territories were open to all settlers, including slaveholders. The bill also included a new, tougher Fugitive Slave Law, which required that runaway slaves be returned to their owners. The new law had severe penalties for nonenforcement. A chief grievance of Southerners against the old law was that Northerners would not enforce it. Other sections of the bill abolished slavery in the District of Columbia and settled a boundary dispute between Texas and New Mexico.
President Taylor did not share the fear, held by Clay, Fillmore, and others who favored compromise, that the Union was threatened. He insisted on the admission of California as a free state, and he encouraged New Mexico to adopt a free status. Taylor’s opposition hindered those who favored the compromise. However, he died suddenly on July 9, 1850, and Fillmore took the oath as president. President Fillmore’s choice of a Cabinet showed unmistakably that, as a moderate Whig and a foe of sectionalism, he favored compromise to avoid a national crisis. As his secretary of state, Fillmore appointed Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, who had appealed for compromise in a celebrated speech on March 7, 1850.
Another significant Cabinet appointment was Governor John J. Crittenden of Kentucky, also a well-known conciliatory Whig, as attorney general. Fillmore made plain his desire for peace in a message to Congress on August 6, 1850. It was hailed by influential congressional leaders as a masterstroke of timing and persuasive moderation. Aided by the full power and support of Fillmore’s administration, Clay’s omnibus bill, known as the Compromise of 1850, was split into five separate measures, all of which were passed by Congress and signed into law by Fillmore. Meanwhile, the Nashville convention adjourned without taking any action against the Union.
One of the five measures was the new Fugitive Slave Law. Fillmore signed and, more important, enforced the Fugitive Slave Law, actions that were completely in keeping with his conciliatory policy. As a result, he won the hatred of the more radical antislavery group. Seward and Weed, the antislavery Whig leaders of New York, opposed Fillmore vehemently, and the president countered by removing pro-Seward people from federal office. At a Whig convention in Syracuse, New York, resolutions were passed approving Seward’s radical position. Thereupon a contingent of Fillmore conservatives walked out, led by Francis Granger, whose gray hair gave the name “Silver Gray Whigs” to that faction.
This act widened the breach in the Whig Party, which was also disintegrating in other parts of the country on the issue of slavery. The most important aspect of Fillmore’s foreign policy was his sanction of a plan to open Japan to world commerce, which had been largely prohibited there for more than 200 years. Influenced by petitions to Congress and other evidences of public interest, he approved an expedition to open the “sealed” empire. In January 1852 a naval expedition was entrusted to Commodore Matthew C. Perry.
In July 1853, four months after Fillmore left the presidency, Perry arrived in Japan with four men-of-war. That visit and another visit the following year culminated in a commercial treaty between the United States and Japan. Fillmore was reluctant to serve a second term, but participated in the Whig national convention of 1852 because he wanted to ensure that the party platform supported the Compromise of 1850. After securing that, he asked that his name be withdrawn at an opportune moment and his delegates transferred to Daniel Webster, another contender for the Whig presidential nomination. However, Fillmore’s Southern Whig supporters, who believed he would win, backed him vigorously and never did withdraw his name. They held out for Webster to release his delegates.
By the time Webster did that, it was too late. The antislavery Whigs had secured control of the convention and, mindful of Fillmore’s enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, they succeeded in having General Winfield Scott named the party’s candidate. In November, Scott was decisively defeated by his Democratic opponent, Franklin Pierce. After the 1852 election the Whig Party broke up over the slavery issue. By 1856 its place had been taken by the Republican Party, led by Seward and Weed. Fillmore turned over the presidential office to Pierce in March 1853.
His wife died less than a month later, and the former president returned to his home in Buffalo. In 1856, Fillmore accepted the presidential nomination of the American Party, a coalition of Silver Gray Whigs and Know-Nothings, a secretive political group opposed to immigration. In the 1856 national election, contested by the Democrat James Buchanan, the Republican John C. Fremont, and the American Fillmore, Buchanan triumphed by a small margin. Fillmore carried only the eight electoral votes of Maryland, a border slave state.
The popular vote was 1,838,169 for Buchanan, 1,341,264 for Fremont, and 874,534 for Fillmore. Fillmore returned permanently to private life, but he continued to regard the political scene with interest and anxiety. Critical eventsthe election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the secession of the Southern states in 1860 and 1861 that led to the outbreak of the Civil Warinduced Fillmore to take the platform to plead against secession and disunion. Always for conciliation rather than coercion, Fillmore opposed some of President Lincoln’s measures. In 1864, when Lincoln ran for reelection, Fillmore supported General George B. McClellan, the Democratic candidate and a conservative. After the war, Fillmore’s sympathies were with President Andrew Johnson in opposition to the Radical Republicans in Congress, who inflicted their drastic, punitive Reconstruction policy on the defeated secessionist states.
In 1858, Fillmore remarried. His second wife was Mrs. Caroline C. McIntosh of Albany, New York. He continued his law practice in Buffalo, interrupting it to make two trips to Europe. His civic interests included the University of Buffalo, now SUNY Buffalo, and he was its first chancellor.
He was a founder of the Buffalo Historical Society and the Buffalo General Hospital, and he was active in other community projects, such as the Natural Science Society. He died in 1874.